A report issued days before Thanksgiving without much fanfare points a damning finger at Congress for not learning from the Exxon Valdez disaster and failing to appropriate necessary funds for research and development to deal with possible catastrophes as the oil industry “pushed the frontier of deepwater drilling.” The lack of R&D funds left the Coast Guard, NOAA and others fighting the Deepwater Horizon disaster with technology that hadn’t been updated much in nearly two decades.
The Response/Clean-Up Technology Research & Development and the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill report for the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling examined the R&D efforts of both the private sector and federal government and found no “dedicated appropriate resources to clean-up technology since the Exxon Valdez spill, and that the Deepwater Horizon spill response suffered as a result.”
While the oil industry is an easy target, the allegations against Congress are disturbing for some, but not everyone.
“We constantly get small inside looks at how dysfunctional the Beltway has become,” says Mike Papantonio, environmental attorney and co-host of the syndicated Ring of Fire Radio. “This document is just another indicator that the clown car simply unloads a new bunch of congressional clowns in D.C. every election cycle. The prospects for real leadership are dismal.”
Officials in Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindel’s administration agree that oil spill cleanup response technology has advanced little in the past 20 years but also believe that the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon disaster may have overwhelmed any technology.
Garret Graves, Jindel’s chair of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, says, “Since Exxon Valdez, we’ve replaced brick-sized cell phones with iPhones. Yet little has changed in oil spill technology.”
Graves adds, “However, no matter what the technology we would have had, we still would have had a problem properly deploying it. The best solutions would have been challenged by the logistical and organizational challenges of this disaster.”
In the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, which spilled 750,000 barrels of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990. That law created the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to be funded by a 5-cent-per-barrel tax collected from the oil industry on petroleum produced in or imported to the United States. It also created the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research and authorized up to $28 million in annual funding from the trust fund for oil pollution research.
The staff report for the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill found “not even half of the authorized $28 million has been appropriated in any single year since passage of the Oil Pollution Act.”
The total oil spill research appropriations is received primarily by four agencies—the Coast Guard, Minerals Management Services (MMS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—and, according to the report, “averaged only roughly $10 million per year since 1992, and have never exceeded $14 million per year.”
Chasidy Hobbs, head of Emerald Coastkeeper, an affiliate of Bobby Kennedy Jr.’s Riverkeepers, says, “The U.S. has some of the best environmental laws on the books, because over the years citizens have demanded protection of our food, water and air. However, those laws are useless if they are not enforced, and they are impossible to enforce without proper funding. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and you get what you pay for!”
The commission staff blames the shortfall in appropriations on the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, which was passed two months after OPA and applied budget caps to all agencies and all agency funding. According to the report, “oil spill research was then forced to compete with other priorities within each agency for budget dollars, even though the research funds were from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, and not the general treasury.”
While the MMS budget for oil spill research has held steady at $6.3 million for the last four years, other agencies have seen their oil spill R&D budgets cut. The Coast Guard, which chairs the Interagency Committee, has seen its annual budget for oil spill research plummet from a high of $5.6 million in 1993 to $500,000 annually since 2007. NOAA, which played a major role in the Deepwater Horizon response, has no funding for oil spill R&D, and the EPA oil spill response R&D budget has dropped from $2.5 million in 1992 and 1993 to an average of less than $1 million annually for the last decade.
The staff report suggests that the Commission might recommend the Oil Pollution Act be amended to ensure that federal agency oil spill R&D efforts are fully funded to levels authorized by the Act. However, any mandatory appropriation of $28 million for oil spill research would have to be subtracted somewhere else. Not an easy sell when you’re battling a $1.3 trillion federal deficit.
Staffers write, “Nevertheless, the Commission may determine that a mandatory appropriation is worth these additional complications.”